Can a progressive new brewery help power the local labor movement?

By Haley Hamilton

It behooves every American to encourage home manufactures, that our oppressors may feel through their pockets the effects of their blind folly. -Samuel Adams

What’s more innovative than another app for delivering food? Well, almost anything, really, but a brand-new venture, the first of its kind in Boston, that’s opening early next year on Temple Place in Downtown Crossing should set new standards for innovation around something very important — beer.

In addition to a hangout with its walls adorned in inspirations from the Revolutionary War period, Democracy Brewing will be a 100-percent worker-owned establishment, a business model that will take all decision-making and problem-solving power out of the traditional corporate hierarchy — where employees typically must seek permission to make changes from bosses who are blind to the need for change — and put it in the hands of workers on the ground level.

The founders of Democracy Brewing come from two worlds that intersect often: alcohol and activism. James Razsa is a former labor and community activist; Jason Taggart was head brewer for eight years at John Harvard Brewery in Cambridge. Both aim to make their project not only a place that makes and serves great beer, but a pillar of the Boston worker’s community and a space to foster conversation, education, and empowerment.

If they pull it off, Democracy Brewing will be one of the most innovative businesses in the city. An illustrious spot with an honorable mission: to recreate the public house culture that Boston’s forefathers drank and debated in, a scene where problems are solved, ideas are generated, and people fight for, well, democracy. The business “will operate as a worker-owned cooperative, which grants employees equity shares in the business after one year of employment. In addition, all workers will begin at $15/hour, plus tips.”

Razsa and Taggart first met through a fellow activist and beer guru who works at Lord Hobo. Razsa had been conceptualizing a co-op brewery for about three years, and Taggart was an obvious ideal complement to come onboard.

“James really had the business side together, and he needed someone who knew beer,” Taggart says. “We hit it off right away. The project really appealed to me. Promoting the idea that if a problem arises we work on it and fix it together, that appeals to me dramatically.”

Their partnership — marrying Taggart’s 15 years of brewing knowledge with Razsa’s extensive career in activism — was a no-brainer. Taggart took on Razsa as an intern at John Harvard’s, and they began putting the pieces in place for their benevolent enterprise.

“Democracy Brewing came from the idea of two American dreams,” Razsa says. It’s his pitch; you’ll hear him say it often, but he seems more than earnest about it. “One, that you’d be able to own your own business, and two, that democracy belongs everywhere. By bringing those ideals together we came up with a worker’s collective, something that is worker owned and democratically run.”

The brewery will run like so: Initially, everyone will be hired as an employee, just like any other bar or restaurant. But after one year, all staff members who have been at Democracy Brewing for at least one year (and have gone through this process themselves) have a vote. If you’re voted in, you then become eligible to buy a Class A share of the business, which earns you voting rights. The voting process steers much more than who is added to the payroll. Everyone with voting rights can cast their vote in decisions on things like wage adjustments and participate in discussions around policy.

Not every little thing will be voted on — if chef wants to switch up the menu because the kitchen’s short on kale, he needn’t consult the whole team. But major decisions are decided jointly. To prepare for such responsibilities, in addition to running the brewery and pub, employees will also work to build the business and community of Democracy Brewing.

“In a perfect world, a person will spend 30 hours bartending [or managing or cooking] and 10 hours a week helping the business grow by booking events, getting a band to come down, helping with marketing, doing tours or classes,” Razsa says. “The idea is to turn on its head the model that, in the service industry, many are part-time employees who leave their work at work at the end of the day … Now, it’s a full-time job, and part of that job is running the business and helping it grow.”

Photo via Democracy Brewing

A lot of what they’re doing is in a similar vein to Hub icon Harpoon, which three years ago allocated 48 percent of the company to its employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Program. The difference in Democracy Brewing’s approach, at least in this point of their planning, is in the kind of involvement that non-employees could have.

“We’re really trying to push that this is a community,” Taggart says. If they are successful, a portion of the profits will be put into expanding that involvement. “A portion of profits will pay for on-site education and organizing,” Razsa adds.

Along those lines, the menu at Democracy Brewing will pack more than just food options and featured beers. You’ll also find a lineup of weekly meetings and business courses geared toward empowering the public to counter the workplace ills that Razsa spent years trying to right as an activist.

“After fighting so long against problems, I wanted to focus on solutions,” he says.

Razsa explains further: “Monday night at six, when we’re slow, come to our event space, and if your boss isn’t paying you fair wages, you’re facing discrimination, sexism, dangerous conditions, or you’re just not happy, come here and we’ll teach you your rights. Then, on Tuesday, come in and we’ll have classes on running your own business.”

And the rest of the money from sales? That will be divided equally and dispersed to employees as end-of-year bonuses.

“If we do a good job, we get a sweet bonus at the end of the day,” Razsa says. “At the same time, if we do make bad decisions, we pay for them. In the traditional business model, people make bad decisions all the time and the workers pay for it. We want the people who actually make the decisions to get the good stuff and bad stuff from that.”

All of which is drastically different than standard operating procedure at most corporations, including many in Boston’s booming economy. This region may be home to more startups than anywhere else in New England, but all too often just the founding members or those in the top managerial ranks make the decisions.

That’s not the best idea. According to a Forbes analysis of why 90 percent of startups fail, the second leading cause of closings is the failure of teams to approach business collectively.

When “the CEO thinks, ‘It’s my job to lead.’ The CMO thinks, ‘It’s my job to market.’ The lead developer thinks, ‘It’s my job to code,’” businesses fail, according to Forbes.

As has been noted by area business blogs and some other outfits since Democracy Brewing raised $20,000 in a crowdfunding campaign last year, the effort isn’t quite a startup in the traditional corny sense. You don’t need new technology to make or sell beer, and their business model is unique, if not downright daring. Even if service industry co-ops aren’t all that new.

Regarding inspiration for this undertaking, Razsa tips his hat to, and plans to emulate the model of, the Arizmendi Bakery in San Francisco, a network of cooperatively owned franchises throughout the Bay Area. Their Cheeseboard operation opened in Berkeley in 1997, and fast became a local hit. Operators then helped open the first Arizmendi, in Oakland, shortly thereafter, and in 2000 Arizmendi San Francisco came to be. There are now five locations, including the original Cheeseboard. Elsewhere, last year Liberty Bar in Seattle transitioned to a cooperative model, with ownership citing, among other things, an undying love for the industry as spurring the need to find a new way of doing things.

“I could not imagine just selling the bar to the highest bidder,” Liberty’s owner, Andrew Friedman, told Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger. In an interview with Tales of the Cocktail, one of the industry’s leading organizations and publications, he further explained: “A lot of bars, especially cocktail bars, have a tough time making the kind of profits we see around the rest of the industry … And often the recourse of the owner is to close the bar, walk away, or sell it. But in this case, here’s the opportunity for the staff — who do not necessarily have the same profit directives — to be able to take over and operate.”

Liberty’s staff is now cooperatively organized and kicking, as are various other co-ops in Boston — Harvest Co-Op Markets, Red Sun Press, and the South Shore Recycling Cooperative, to name a few.

“Boston’s changing,” Razsa says. “Boston used to be a city of small towns, where every neighborhood was its own town. Gentrification has destroyed that, and a lot of things that used to help communities to build communities have died away.”

So while technology connects a lot of people who never would have crossed paths without Twitter or Reddit, online networking has also kept some people whose rights are most likely to be violated — day laborers, the undocumented, the underpaid in general — from accessing the information and relationships they need to better their situation. A place like Democracy Brewing can help mend some bridges there.

Which if you think about it sounds just like the publicity strategy of innumerable startups. But without the hero executive worship.

“[Modern society puts] people who run businesses on a pedestal,” Razsa says. “[What Democracy Brewing is doing is] not rocket science. We want to distinctly create a space that connects people. Both for fun and for getting shit done.”

Copyright 2016 Haley Hamilton.

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